Friday, July 13, 2012

Trisha Brown's Astral Converted at the Armory

Astral Converted, performed in inner space. Photo: Stephanie Berger
The name Trisha Brown immediately conjures upright choreography, a deceptively plush style with ample leg brushes, twisting upper bodies, and rapid direction shifts. Or perhaps, her early, action-oriented pieces, involving wall walking or leaning. But watching Astral Converted (1991) at the Armory last week was to revisit the rigorous Valiant period of her career. Of particular note are the knotty still floor poses where the shoulders and head are treated as equal support elements to the limbs, the dancers' bodies folded into blobby pyramids, morphing into abstract sculptures. 

The collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg (visual presentation) and John Cage (sound score) might suggest that the piece was created earlier, since they contributed elements to dances decades before. There is an odd temporal tension between the Judson swag (push brooms) and the taut, formal choreography in which they're used. There's none of that shaggy incidental aspect here; everything is deliberate, designed, constructed. 

Rauschenberg's rolling towers are brilliantly economical, compactly serving the functions of set, lighting, and sound. He assembled auto parts in a metal framework, powering the headlights with car batteries, and employing car stereo systems and sensors for timing and triggering. The directional lighting amid the yawning dark of the Armory evoked images of midnight dancing in a parking lot lit by parked cars.

He garbed the dancers in silver unitards with contrasting silver panels; the womens' had sheer panels between the legs, like bat wings. Cage's score was fairly tame for him, sustained brass notes and bleats that felt somewhat distant due to the speaker locations. From time to time, a dancer would roll a tower to a new location, once more shifting the aspect.

Momentum built as time passed. Rather than loose-knit groups, Brown used straight lines of four dancers, or neat pairs. A late trio featured careful, yet daring, partnering, the men swooping a woman from the floor and flipping her rotisserie-style, with her leg and torso as a spit. Leanings did appear in sections, which when combined with the brooms, braided Brown's past with a more modern, stringent period. It's humbling to realize these were but a couple of genres within this inventive choreographer's creative output. While Astral used the Drill Hall's spectacular vastness less than previous productions, it did take on an otherworldliness from the void, like a glimpse of a beautiful, intelligent alien civilization.

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